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Published: Tuesday, 5/13/2008

Lucas County Elections Board tries to address ballot problem

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

Lucas County elections officials are investigating ways to avoid a repeat of what happened in the March 4 primary election, when 921 absentee ballots were disqualified because voters failed to seal them in ballot envelopes that were too small.

Daniel Pilrose, county elections director, said larger ballot envelopes are being ordered for the Nov. 4 election, and he said more explicit directions printed on the back of the envelope might help reduce the number of disqualified votes.

Some other large Ohio counties said they also disqualified ballots left outside the identification envelope.

Local elections officials took action to fix the problem after The Blade on Sunday reported that of 17,676 absentee ballots in Lucas County that were received by Election Day, 1,570 were disqualified for a variety of reasons.

In 921 cases, the reason was failure to insert the ballot inside the "identification document," an envelope on which the voter writes identifying information. The Blade published the names of all 921 voters Sunday.

Mr. Pilrose said the larger ballot envelope, which was already being planned, better instructions, and publicity about the problem should help minimize the number of disqualified ballots in the future.

Summit County, which includes Akron, disqualified 192 ballots out of 20,015 absentee ballots because voters failed to insert the ballot inside the identification envelope, said Bryan Williams, deputy director.

He said the board split 2-2 over whether to count such ballots in 2007 and turned to Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner for a tie-breaking decision.

She ordered that the ballots not be counted.

"Most of these are innocent mistakes, but the language is clear," Mr. Williams said.

The state's election law requires voters to place the ballot inside the accompanying security envelope.

But another section of the election law cites a series of circumstances under which a ballot should be disqualified - and failure to insert the ballot in the envelope is not one of them.

According to Mr. Williams, the reason cited by the secretary of state is that the voter signs a statement that he or she inserted the ballot inside the envelope and sealed it. If the ballot isn't inside the envelope, then the statement is false, and thus the ballot is invalid.

"The form on the outside of the envelope says, 'I personally sealed the ballot in the envelope,'•" Mr. Williams said. "Because that could not be true, the secretary of state has advised us the affirmation was false and therefore we could not count the ballot." He said Ms. Brunner's predecessor, Ken Blackwell, had the same rule.

Ms. Brunner, who was in Boston yesterday receiving an award, said "the law doesn't leave us any leeway on that."

"The security envelope protects the secrecy of the ballot," Ms. Brunner said. Told of Lucas County's number of disqualified ballots, she said, "That's a lot."

"We obviously want every vote to be counted, but we have to make sure the board and voters are complying with the law," Ms. Brunner said.

In Franklin County, which includes Columbus, 101,323 ballots were mailed in, but only 98,669 were counted, a board official said.

The total rejected was 2,654 - 885 because they were received after the deadline and 1,769 for other reasons, including failure to enclose the ballot in the security envelope.

Ben Piscitelli, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections, said the reason for rejecting ballots not returned inside their security envelopes is that, "if it's not inside the envelope, they can't verify that it matches the security ID on the envelope."

A review by The Blade of the returned ballot mailers still maintained by the Lucas County board of elections showed that in virtually all instances, the ballot was in the mailer next to the security envelope, suggesting that voter intent would be easy to determine.

Peg Rosenfield, elections specialist with the League of Women Voters of Ohio, noted that Ms. Brunner has suggested changing state law to give absentee voters a chance to correct technical flaws with their ballots.

It's not clear whether the ballot being outside the security envelope would be something that could be corrected.

Ms. Rosenfield said no one has brought this issue to her attention as a problem that must be corrected.

"It's a protection of the voter. [Election boards] do all of the identifying that is necessary off the envelope without looking at the ballot. They determine whether it is legitimate before they know how it's voted," Ms. Rosenfield said. "There's a really good reason for the security envelope."

Some counties quietly take care of the problem so as to avoid discarding a ballot.

When Wood County receives a ballot that is outside the identification envelope, a board employee contacts the voter to verify that the voter submitted an absentee ballot, and then simply inserts the ballot in the envelope and seals it, said Terry Burton, elections director.

"In the event that we can verify that that ballot was the ballot that was issued and we can verify that the individual that returned that ballot was the voter themselves then typically we will count that ballot," Mr. Burton said.

He said such cases were rare.

Lucas County, following the letter of the law as interpreted by Ms. Brunner and Mr. Blackwell, dropped the deficient envelopes in a box, uncounted.

A spokesman for the Cuyahoga County board of elections was unable to say whether any uncounted ballots were handled that way.

"I've been told we don't have a lot of those kind of problems," spokesman Mike West said. "The ballots are prefolded by the printer."

Lucas County's ballots also were prefolded, but the voters were required to make an additional fold to fit the ballot into the envelope.

Some have suggested that voters feared making the additional fold because of a warning on the outside of the mailer saying "Please Do Not Bend."

Blade Columbus Bureau Chief Jim Provance contributed to this report.

Contact Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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